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No zeal without Zeller, as Hornets lose fourth straight

Hornets drop fourth straight game as Cody Zeller is once again sorely missed.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

January hasn’t been a kind month on the Charlotte Hornets.

Losing to the Sacramento Kings last night makes the Hornets 4-10 during the month. Last season was much of the same, as they went 6-11.

Worst of all, perhaps, is the team’s 1-9 record when Cody Zeller doesn’t play.

Arguably, Zeller has been the Hornets’ second most important player behind All-Star Kemba Walker. He’s averaging 10.9 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and shooting 59 percent from the field on the season, all of which are career highs. The numbers aren’t necessarily eye-opening but Zeller opens up the fast paced offense while proving to be a reliable defensive piece.

In fact, Zeller leads the team with a 100.7 defensive rating if you don’t count the the seldom output of Treveon Graham and Brian Roberts. Zeller’s offensive rating is second to Walker’s by a 0.1 margin with 108.7, also making his net rating at 6.0 the best on the team.

He’s important and last night proved it once again.

Kings All-Star DeMarcus Cousins got whatever he wanted, scoring 35 points and adding 18 rebounds. He was no match for the Zeller-less Hornets, despite throwing three different defenders his way.

The Kings knew it would be even more of a mismatch than usual and took full advantage by dumping the ball down low on nearly ever possession.

Give credit to Spencer Hawes, who in Zeller’s absence has played admirably. He scored eight of his 12 points in the fourth quarter last night, and has averaged over nine points and eight rebounds over the last three games that Zeller has missed.

However, along with a limited Roy Hibbert, the two can’t provide prolonged defensive stability to stop a workhorse like Cousins. That was why Marvin Williams had the task of defending Cousins in important stretches, but even as a good defender, he lacks the size and strength to halt the big man.

It’s not to say Zeller would have been a defensive stalwart and held Cousins to half his numbers, but it’s obvious they could have used his size and length to make life easier guarding Cousins inside the paint and preventing him from getting seven offensive rebounds. Also, Zeller’s abilities in transition are often overlooked. He’s capable of finishing at the rim but has also shown he can make the additional pass if there’s another option alongside him.

Strangely enough, he also helps spread the floor on offense, even more than Hawes at times. The midrange jump shot that Zeller has improved over the years plays a major role in the Hornets offense. He isn’t shooting 10 of them a game, but the elbow jumper is open more often than not because of the way Walker attracts players on his way inside the paint. It also gives room to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist inside the arc and to Williams outside of it.

Injuries have without a doubt been a struggle for the Hornets this season, as it seems ages ago that they were at full strength. Along with Zeller, Jeremy Lamb missed last night’s game and without consistency in the rotation it’s hard to win on a nightly basis.

It’s still not time to hit the panic button, but it might be time to look for an additional piece with the trade deadline approaching in less than a month. An additional player that can play a little power forward and center would be vital, someone like Taj Gibson of the Chicago Bulls.

As for Zeller, one has to hope he can stay healthy in the second half of the season. He’s easily the most improved player on the team, and given the recent stretch, the Hornets sorely miss him.